THEY DARE TO CLIMB A TERRIFYING NEW PEAK IN SUSPENSE… ALL THE WAY UP TO HELL!
Whoever wrote director Brian G. Hutton’s Wikipedia entry listed Kelly’s Heroes (1970) as his most notable work, which seems odd. That movie has its fans, as well as a Clint Eastwood performance, an adventuresome World War II setting and a sense of humor. But Hutton’s greatest achievement will always be another World War II adventure, Where Eagles Dare. Granted, it may not have a rich sense of humor, but it was more successful financially and provided enough action to sustain a two-and-a-half-hour movie. And, oh yes, Clint was around for this one as well.
Hired to rescue an American general
Six months prior to the invasion of Europe in 1944, a team of commandos led by a Brit, Major John Smith (Richard Burton), is hired to rescue an American general who’s been captured by the Germans and taken to the Schloss Adler, a fortress in the Alps. Obviously, the general will be interrogated and, since he’s one of the planners of the second front, Smith’s commandos need to get to him before he breaks. Along for the mission is an American, Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Eastwood), as well as a woman, Mary Elison (Mary Ure).
The team parachute in near the fortress in Bavaria, but one of them is found dead in the snow by the others. It is written off as an accident, but Smith knows better; he realizes that one of the commandos is a traitor, but tells no one. The team’s job is to blend in with the locals in the village at the foot of the mountain where Schloss Adler is built…
Hard to trust anyone
When Alistair MacLean was approached for a new project in the late 1960s, he didn’t really have anything written but agreed to deliver something. Out of the deal came not only this script, but also a novel. Where Eagles Dare may not quite have the gravitas of The Guns of Navarone (1961), but unlike most war movies from the 1960s with roughly the same bloated running time, it moves fast. After a brief introduction where Smith’s team learn why this mission is so important, the action begins with the parachute drop and it doesn’t really let up until the surviving members get back on a plane that barely escapes German fire. And then there’s even a final twist.
Fans of the author will enjoy the treacherous games that are always part of his stories, and this time it’s hard to trust anyone, especially in one clever sequence in the fortress that almost has us fooled. Hutton and his expert team of collaborators make sure that every part of the action counts; you’ve got your car chases, shootouts, huge explosions, and (since this is the Alps) cable-car fights. All of it looks good and it’s admirable how tension remains high in spite of the movie’s length, but the filmmakers always have one elaborate trick left up their sleeves. There’s a clear determination in Hutton’s direction and MacLean’s story; whenever the mission goes wrong (which happens now and then) we can’t wait to see how Smith and his people will get out of the jam.
The locations are a huge plus. Schloss Adler is actually Burg Hohenwerfen, an intimidating 11th-century castle in Austria that plays its part as a Nazi nest perfectly, and the other wintry Alp scenes were also shot in Austria. Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson’s chilly approach is totally convincing, even during some of the back-projection scenes.
The actors? Well, they take a backseat. The women don’t really have much to do. Burton has the meatiest part and plays it very well; Eastwood doesn’t say much, but as in so many other films silent intimidation is part of the effect that his character is supposed to have.
Where Eagles Dare 1968-U.S. 158 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Elliott Kastner. Directed by Brian G. Hutton. Screenplay, Novel: Alistair MacLean. Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson. Music: Ron Goodwin. Cast: Richard Burton (John Smith), Clint Eastwood (Morris Schaffer), Mary Ure (Mary Ellison), Michael Hordern, Patrick Wymark, Robert Beatty.
Trivia: Lee Marvin was allegedly considered for a part.
Last word: “I agreed to give [MacLean] ten thousand pounds up front and an additional hundred thousand dollars when I had arranged the finance. The first ten grand being from my own money. ‘So’ he said, ‘What is it you want?’ ‘I want a team of five or six guys on a mission in the Second World War, facing enormous obstacles. I want a mystery. I want a sweaty, exciting adventure movie.’ That’s all I told him, just that. So, we made the business arrangement and… shit, I even gave him ten percentage points of the profit. I tellya, to this day he and his estate collect money from ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Every February, they still get a cheque.” (Kastner, Film Review)